I’ll admit it: I’d never heard of the Hugos before last year. Sci fi geek that I am, the scene, the cons, and the awards had never really tripped my radar. I liked to read the books I liked to read, and if I could talk about them with some of my friends, great. The buck stopped there, and I had my nose in the next book.
But when I started noticing book blogs, I couldn’t help but notice the Hugos, an annual set of awards in the sci fi community that drum up pages and pages of controversy every year. Anyone with enough money to buy a supporting or attending membership to the World Science Fiction Convention can vote (that year and the following year). So it’s a popular vote, albeit one that draws a clear economic line. If you can’t afford to buy the membership, you’re out. Ultimately, the award might not single out the year’s true best (if there really can said to be such a thing), but it often does succeed in singling out something interesting. I haven’t gone through the entire back catalogue of winners, so I can’t say for sure, but a glance through the list turns up plenty of books that I would give a nod, a smile, and a pat on the back.
This year, I’m allowed to vote because, holy shit, I’m going to Loncon3. In order to make informed voting easier, and perhaps more probable, all members receive a voter packet that includes copies of the nominated works. (Though this year Orbit, with three authors nominated in the Best Novel category, decided to only include excerpts in the name of financial sanity.) So I uploaded the short stories onto my phone and got to reading.
I don’t get down with short fiction often; I prefer to spend more time in my imaginary worlds than a short story allows. Yet I thoroughly enjoyed each of these, to the point of feelingly stutteringly impressed by the quality. Without the Hugos, I may never have even heard of these, let alone read them. (What the hell was I expecting? When will I learn to read more short fiction? When will I stop assuming I will hate it, since I almost never actually hate it?) I still can’t decide how I should vote.
“If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” by Rachel Swirsky
If You Were a Dinosaur My Love. WOW. Well-crafted & fucking beautiful. Have I already decided or is deciding going to be impossible?
— Book Punks (@bookpunks) July 18, 2014
God DAMN was this a good story. Poetic. Beautiful. Tragic. A story told within a fanciful what if that keeps you reading when you otherwise might have bailed ship on the same story told with other words. I can’t tell you what it’s about without spoiling something, I think, but the title tells you enough to get you started. And listen to this shit: “I’d pull out a hydrangea the shade of the sky and press it against my heart and my heart would beat like a flower. I’d bloom. My happiness would become petals. Green chiffon would turn into leaves. My legs would be pale stems, my hair delicate pistils. From my throat, bees would drink exotic nectars. I would astonish everyone assembled, the biologists and the paleontologists and the geneticists, the reporters and the rubberneckers and the music aficionados, all those people who — deceived by the helix-and-fossil trappings of cloned dinosaurs — believed that they lived in a science fictional world when really they lived in a world of magic where anything was possible.”
“Selkie Stories Are for Losers” by Sofia Samatar
Selkie Stories Are for Losers: Good but overshadowed by If You Were. Worth coming back to. — Book Punks (@bookpunks) July 18, 2014
I really enjoyed this story—a selkie story (that is, I think, of some sort of magical seal creature that gets turned into a human) told by a daughter whose mom has disappeared back into the water. It suffered for directly following my reading of “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love,” but remains tightly crafted, fun, well done. Samatar is the author of the acclaimed A Stranger in Olondria. I had previously decided that that novel wasn’t for me, but after reading this short story, I’m not so sure. Have a little taste:
“I don’t tell her how I went up to the attic that day or that what I was looking for was a book I used to read when I was little, Beauty and the Beast, which is a really decent story about an animal who gets turned into a human and stays that way, the way it’s supposed to be. I don’t tell Mona that Beauty’s black hair coiled to the edge of the page, or that the Beast had yellow horns and a smoking jacket, or that instead of finding the book I found the coat, and my mom put it on and went out the kitchen door and started up her car.”
“The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” by John Chu
The Water that Falls in You From Nowhere: another wow. Great story. Like the play amongst languages. Well told. Neat concept. Another fav.
— Book Punks (@bookpunks) July 18, 2014
Though I remain uncertain about whether it will land in first place on my ballot (rather than choosing just one “winning” nominee, you rate them all), I have a hunch that it will win the award. I loved “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love,” but it isn’t truly linear, isn’t traditional, isn’t direct, and for some people, the kind who are in this genre for the stories or the tech and not for the beauty of the words themselves, that isn’t going to go over well. It is poetry, and poetry isn’t everybody’s thing. (Hell, when it’s not in prose form, it isn’t my thing.) “The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere” is about a guy interacting with his family, his lover, his truths and his lies, and his coming out at a family Christmas gathering. If anyone lies, they are drenched with water that appears from (you’ve heard this one before folks) nowhere. What Chu was able to do with the characters and their relationships through this phenomenon was wonderful—the magical element was not backdrop, but an intimate thread, a tool, in the telling. Beforehand, I’d read a review of this story that went on about the use of Chinese in the work (despite the fact that the majority of its readers are likely not to speak Mandarin) and while it didn’t turn out to play with the translation element happening as much as I’d been led to believe by that article/hoped, it added another satisfying layer to the story, particularly for a reader who is into words and fascinated by what happens when words are translated between languages in different situations. A taste: “Gus’s words pummel me no matter how softly he tosses them. My own words scrape my throat. I taste salt and metal when I swallow. Lying then letting the water wash my throat and fill my lungs tempts me as much as pretending Gus isn’t sitting on the bed. Every trip, I decide that I’ll sort things out later. Then I go home and pretend the trip never happened. That won’t work this time. Gus is, if nothing else, a witness and a reminder.” “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
The Ink Readers of Doi Saket: Interesting and well-written but didnt grab me. At least that makes the decision a tick easier. — Book Punks (@bookpunks) July 18, 2014
After all that “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket” just couldn’t do it for me. The story is interesting. I liked the magic, the tale, the whole shebang. But I wasn’t moved, and the pace was a tick too slow for my current disposition. While several of the images therein have remained with me, they don’t spark in ecstasy when I look at them, don’t inspire the awe that “The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere” and “If You Were a Dinosaur My Love” did and do. I didn’t even mark any passages to re-read at a later date.
So what the fuck am I going to vote for?
I don’t know. “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” and “The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere” are tied for first place, with “Selkie Stories Are for Losers” trailing close behind. How do I choose between story and poetry? If I could give two stories first place, I would; they are both wonderful for very different reasons. “Dinosaur” does wonderful things with words, but “Water” has it in the structure and the story. Which is ultimately most important for this kind of award? Does it really matter in the end? When it comes to the short stories category, the award has already done its job: it’s gotten people reading.